A lot of people really love riding on roller coasters. So do I. They’re the first thing I look for when I visit an amusement park. I love being slung around at high speeds through twists and turns, even getting flipped upside down a few times. They’re exciting, and give me things I can’t experience any other time in life. I once had dreams of flying fighter airplanes, and that wild ride reminds me of those fond dreams.
The thing about coasters is that ultimately they’re very predictable. We can see what’s coming and prepare ourselves. They can be momentarily scary, but deep down we absolutely know that we will be safe.
On the other hand, coasters can be a lot more frightening for a child. They’re smaller, so they can’t see as well, and they don’t have the life experience to fully trust that they’ll be safe.
A Roller Coaster Story
As a child in the late 1970s, I got to ride the brand-new “Loch Ness Monster” roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a ground-breaking coaster when it was built, the first one to have a pair of interlocking loops. I’d been on several smaller and tamer coasters in my young life, but this was far and away faster and taller – and scarier to anticipate. I wasn’t a tall boy, so I was buried deeply into the tall seats, and could barely see out the front, and after that stunningly steep first drop, we hit the first high-speed curve, and the coaster banked sharply to the left. Not knowing that turn was coming, I didn’t brace myself, and my head slammed into the hard side of the car, and I spent much of the rest of the ride somewhat disconcerted and unable to fully enjoy the experience.
So it seems to me that maturity is a big contributor to the enjoyment of a roller coaster. My dad, much taller than me, could see the turn was coming, had the wisdom to brace for it, and didn’t have the same experience as me. As it was also his first ride, he didn’t realize the turn would be that sharp, so he couldn’t protect me from what he didn’t know was coming. In fact, some years later as a young father myself, I took my own children to the same ride, and with the wisdom of personal experience with the ride, and an awareness of the hazard of that turn, was able to guide them through the ride without incident.
So as adults we buy a ticket to ride, while as a child someone else decides for us. Either way, we pay our money, give our “yes” to the ride operator, and hang on for the ride. And we go home at the end of the day, hopefully laughing together about the scary/fun ride we just had.
Knowing Your Limits
But even for adults, enjoying a coaster has its limits. If you’re not familiar with coasters, there’s nobody else to reassure you; it’s assumed that you’re going to be okay and it would feel insulting to have another adult warn you about such things.
Also, enjoying a coaster begins to have its own elements of doubt – we need faith in the system and maintenance, and as we get older we can see the limits in such systems. We’ve seen those articles about occasional amusement park mishaps. What seemed perfectly safe as a young man might look a bit less safe with some wisdom behind our view. Furthermore, as we get older we have less margin for the shaking and forces we’ll experience.
So at some point, that roller coaster becomes downright scary and dangerous once again, and we won’t be quite so willing to jump on.
The Coaster of Life
I’m hardly the first person to make this analogy, and I won’t be the last, but 2020 and 2021 have felt a lot like a roller coaster. There have been lots of emotions, lots of ups and downs, even being upside down, and so many turns that we’re really not sure we’re making progress. And worst of all, we often find outselves – just like a real coaster – ending up right back where we started. If we can’t get off, we’ll have to go through it all again.
And it’s a lot less fun when it’s real life instead of an amusement park.
In fact, to me it’s kind of like riding a coaster in heavy fog. We have no idea what the next turn will be – just that we’re hurtling along a track with no brakes. It requires constant vigilance against the next thing coming, and sometimes there’s really no chance to brace ourselves, and we’re liable to get beat up as we’re swept along. And safety isn’t assured by any means.
It can feel completely out of control, and we’re not sure we trust the ride operator.
As mature adults with plenty of awareness of the dangers, and utter discomfort in the experience, we’re really not having fun any more. We just want off, and back onto stable ground.
Riding With Our Father
But maybe it actually is okay, especially when our trust is in our Father to ride along with us. He wants us to grow, he wants us to experience joy in the ride – not fun, necessarily, but joy. Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines joy as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.“
And that joy can occur even when we’re not having fun, if we anticipate the positive outcome of our situation.
Our Father knows that uncertainty and discomfort are necessary sometimes, and He wants us to be mature for attaining the maximum joy out of the ride. For it truly is a ride, and we don’t have a lot of control over it.
Some part of this real-world theme park is not optional. Life has phases, and a very definitive end, and we don’t know how close ahead it is.
But on the other hand, I think there are plenty of optional roller coaster moments in this theme park life. And I believe they’re training ground for the non-optional rides. We can choose to buy a ticket to ride those optional coasters, specifically so that we learn how to take joy in the ride. That’s how we get to maturity. We can remain immature, banging our head against the car as we get yanked back and forth, or we can learn to brace ourselves, learn to see the path ahead and anticipate the motions, and we can learn to trust the ride operator to keep us safe to the end.
In John 16:33 Jesus said “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.“
Willingly Buying the Ticket
So we come to this issue of buying the ticket. Giving God our “yes.”
I feel like a poster boy for walking out the results of “giving God your yes” this last couple years. The level of upheaval has been stunning to me.
I really resisted doing it for years. I cultivated a general posture of willingness to learn, but not affirming a “yes” proactively. I’d accept what came my way, but I didn’t go so far as to buy a ticket for those optional rides. Frankly speaking, I was afraid of the process. I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant in many ways, and I couldn’t believe there would be joy despite the pain.
But finally I was shaken out of my comfort a couple years ago, and God taught me to give Him my “yes.” And so I have. And I continue to say “yes.”
And I have found this process so far to be pretty much everything I feared it would be – a comprehensive upending of my worldview, and my comfortable places, and my preferred ways of serving the Kingdom. It’s disabused me of countless habits and crutches and long-held lies.
But I’m growing. Fast. And hard.
I’ve heard other people describe the last two years as traumatic. I COULD also call my own process traumatic, if I were of a mind to complain. But in reality I think my Father has been so ever-present through the process that I’ve never felt abandoned or hopeless, even as everything has changed. The rug has truly been yanked out from beneath me, repeatedly, but I found myself landing on a very soft place, not slamming to a hard floor.
And in the whole process, I keep remembering that it’s all been a result of my permission to the Lord to take me through growth and change. I should point out that the initial incident, which precipitated all these massive changes, wasn’t something I said “sure, let’s do this,” but I’ve tried hard for years to cultivate a position of humility and willingness to be corrected, so in a sense God knew I was fundamentally willing.
One part of trauma, at least in my own internal definition, is things done to you against your will. So since God has continually had my permission, even though I was scared, I can’t fairly complain that He’s abused me, or did something I didn’t authorize.
Another factor in my own definition of trauma is that something caused damage. In my case, the lasting result of my process will be growth and healing, not damage or destruction. The only “damage” was to things that should not exist in me. Yes, it’s deeply unpleasant, but it’s resulting in growth.
So my process over the last few years has been a true mix of pain and grace. I’m reminded of John in Revelations 10:9 eating the scroll and finding it both sweet and bitter.
So overall, I would not use the word “trauma” to describe my own roller coaster journey. But I can see why others do.
Choosing How to Respond
Here’s my sense: we can always choose how to mentally respond, and that mental position informs our emotions. I’ve always believed that our mind can lead our emotions. So when God decides it’s time to grow us, and triggers something that topples some pedestal or idol in our lives, if we choose to focus on the growth, I personally think our emotional response will be healthier.
The key, I think, is recognizing that God really is in control of this whole situation – so my responsibility is not trying to
[get out of it],
but trying to
[get what I can out of it].
As my wife frequently asks, “what’s God doing here?” It’s not pleasant, but He has a purpose even in allowing difficult things to touch His people. God gave Satan permission to test Job – not for Job’s pleasure, but for God’s greater glory and for Job’s maturing.
I’m also deeply instructed by a number of prophetic statements from leaders who I trust, even given before COVID, that discussed a lot of what we see happening in some form or other – issues of racism, false prophets, toppling of numerous figureheads both secular and religious, and more.
Related to that, I recognize that a lot of what is happening is entirely consistent with Jesus’ and Daniel’s and the Apostle John’s descriptions in Revelations of the necessary things in the end times, including the very specific statement that everything that can be shaken – EVERYTHING – will be shaken, so that only that which cannot be shaken will remain.
From Hebrews 12:25-29, “See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns us from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let’s show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.“
In my context, that necessarily includes everything in me that trusts anything other than God, including how often I can comfort myself by eating out or going on a vacation, and so forth. So the upheavals in my daily routine serve to point out to me, in some sense, my idols – things that I turn to for peace and satisfaction.
And I similarly find myself reminded that my provider is not the government or the FDA or CDC or my employer or anything else, and it may well be that God is shaking my confidence in those things specifically to turn my heart to Him as my ultimate Source; it may not be pleasant but I can rejoice in each test and trial as I recognize His purpose in refining me.
The Link Between Maturation and Suffering
And this is no fun, but I’m also reminded that suffering is necessary for maturation. I hate the process, I hate the suffering, I hate even the discomfort, but I can see it nudging me towards maturity in every moment.
Here are some relevant verses:
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. (1 Peter 4:1)
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)
I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. (Philippians 3:10)
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)
Where Am I Immature?
So back to the roller coaster analogy, I pointed out that when we’re immature it’s a lot harder to enjoy that coaster.
I’m constantly being challenged to ask what immaturity remains, what dependencies or self-lies or spiritual bindings restrict me, that God is addressing in this present suffering. I rebelled against that idea for years, being quite afraid of the process, and I still wonder how far I’m willing to be taken by the Lord, but like that boy’s father in Mark 9:24 I keep saying “I believe – help my unbelief!” Or in my case, “I will say yes. Help me to be willing to say yes!”
So the way that I’m really wrestling with my emotions these days is a very deep, deep discouragement at what I see happening to the nation and political system and religious system that I’ve loved and served and grown up in all my life.
But even that is another thing I see the Lord shaking. “What matters to you?” I hear Him asking me.
- Are my political party or views something on which my security rests?
- Is my nation’s progress or security or status my lifeline?
- Do I depend on an earthly institution for my peace?
- Is my church more important than God Himself?
- Are my understandings of God, as immature as they probably are, more important to me than God’s purpose in refining me and growing me?
- Is my own sense of doctrine more important than God Himself?
- Am I willing to let all of that go for the sake of maturity, and having every offensive way tested and removed from me?
As David wrote in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, God, and know my heart; put me to the test and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there is any way of pain in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.“
A Benediction of Peace
So I find in myself a very deep peace despite all the shaking and the pull of my emotions and the uncertainty of what’s ahead of me. The roller coaster has no more fear for me, at least right now. I can relax and take joy in the ride, even if it’s not fun.
That’s my thoughts for today; thanks for coming along with me on this wild, twisty, topsy-turvy, unpredictable ride. Be at peace, let our Father fill you with joy, and we’ll talk again soon.